Why a Domain of One’s Own?

I spent a fair amount of time this afternoon writing a bit of a defense of why a program should ask their faculty to explore a Domain of One’s Own. Thinkers like Martha Burtis and Audrey Watters have made the case much better than me, but I figured I’d try and take a crack at it as well. Seems to me the biggest issue folks have with Domains, and they are certainly justified, is that it can start to get too technical. Asking folks to use web hosting software like cPanel demands focused training, significant support, and a rationale for why you are asking them to go beyond setting up a blog on something like wordpress.com.

It’s a fair question, and I tend to take the value of having your own domain and web hosting (as well as the time and energy required to maintain it) for granted, so I tried to make the case. Not sure if I succeeded, but I’ll share my response below knowing full well it’ll be that much better for your critiques and feedback.

Is Domains the right tool?

It’s a good question, and I’ll try and give it my best answer 🙂 For me the answer would ultimately return to what you want folks to get out of their time. I do think that providing faculty a space to build out a course site, web page, portfolio is valuable, but there are many tools you can do that with: the LMS, wordpress.com, wikipedia, blogger, Wix, Squarespace, etc. Why give them access to cPanel and wide range of options? The biggest reason in my mind would be domains provides an opportunity to dive deeper into the infrastructure and architecture that is increasingly shaping the information landscape. What’s more, I whole heartedly think having an understanding of how the web works, and how you can build your own spaces online outside of third-party controls is an important skill. I don’t necessarily think Domains is the only way to do this, but it does provide one way of building a curriculum around how the web works and what it means for teaching and learning.

I guess if you really want to incorporate domains as part of your program, one of the foundations would be asking faculty to dig a bit deeper. This does not mean they need to become sysadmins or programmers, but they would need to get a strong sense of how these infrastructures work and what is possible with open source tools like WordPress. This would mean discussions about open source applications, running multiple applications, encrypting your site, exploring plugins and themes, information architecture, files structure, file naming, archiving, etc. All things that push against the seamless solutions that often elide the underlying logic of the how and why these tools work. So, a domains initiative without a focus on the technology that undergirds the web never really made much sense to me, I think that is why OER focuses so much on textbooks—it’s simple, it has already been defined for decades and has been something we’ve known our whole life. Only difference now is it is being remediated for online, its “digital” —but a book is a book is a book. Domains is about infrastructure and the very means of how contemporary world views are built on this decentralized lattice of machines, and helping faculty become a node on this web should be the raison d’ĂŞtre of any domains initiative. 

All that said, I certainly see the value of easy and can definitely appreciate a tech initiative for faculty without too much confusing overhead, but in some ways a curriculum around domains should resist the impulse to simplify too much. It should ask its participants to struggle with some of the issues surrounding what these digital spaces mean for their disciplines—and to some degree that would require thinking through how they work on a technical level. I understand this might be seen as potentially dogmatic, and I certainly run that risk, but it is hard for me to separate a meaningful experience with domains from a deeper interrogation of the technology that the web is built on. I think it would be up to you to sell that to faculty and participants so that your program is about more than just building a website, but a deeper understanding of the web. Then again, this may be far afield from what you intended with the project, and a simple website would be fine, and on that you would get no argument from me—I just think domains as an academic enterprise has to be about the foundations of the web and how we can build and rebuild it.

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12 Responses to Why a Domain of One’s Own?

  1. When I was a student, Domain of One’s Own was very much framed to me as a tool for curating our digital identities, and why that was so important. While DoOO is obviously marketed to different age groups accordingly, it’s been cool to watch the shift from digital identity to digital literacy just in the last couple of years. Excited to continue this theme and conversation at OER18.

    • Reverend says:


      I agree, it has been interesting, and a lot of that was rooted in the emergence of the Digital Knowledge Center, and the idea that these digital spaces need to be supported and thought through by and with students as peers and mentors. I think the two go hand-in-hand and domains was definitely my road to digital literacy as an edtech, but I think the argument can just as easily be made they are not necessarily essential. I wonder what forms of literacy building a domain engender specifically, I guess our that workshop at OER18 is one I need to attend 🙂

    • Martha says:

      This is a really interesting observation, Lauren. In my mind, the reality is that we always saw DoOO as a digital literacy project. However, to sell it to administrators and others we often talked about it as a digital identity project. I think that approach worked for us in many ways (I think, for example, that digital identity is also a more accessible front door for many students to the project). However, I’ve often wondered (and worried) if, when we talk about it as “merely” a digital identity initiative, we aren’t diluting it in damaging ways.

  2. Alan Levine says:

    You know this well- a domains effort at individual level and institutional is a long haul commitment, an ultra marathon, yet often what people hope for is the kind of 5k you can do just by getting off the couch. Been thinking about the allure of convenience since reading this piece (read via D’Arcy Norman) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenience.html

    I had this sinking feeling after doing a Domains Workshop in Ontario this summer… and it was that a workshop was the wrong approach. Success with domains needs sustained effort on the scale of years; to me that is what the lessons if UMW, CUNY, Oklahoma, VCU show. It gets into the system across multiple planes, not a one off course thing.

    What I don’t know is how to get people to buy into the practice; I recally my running coach telling is only 1% of the general population will finish a marathon. Who wants to run a marathon (I hated it and will never do it again). And unless there is a personal / direct payoff, I feel like often we are talking in Charlie Brown teacher language to many people.

    Maybe the outfall of social media algorithm poisoning is maybe more people will realize that the self managed streams of information are superior to manufactured, convenient ones. All I have is some mild hope.

    Also, here it seems like we are mainly talking about faculty. I’d really like to see (I think I tossed in the Reclaim Community space) some kind of site, video, campaign, that makes a case for students… I recall one video from UMW. I’ve been trying to make a case to my MA students, and it’s uphill, especially when they are drowning in the thesis writing.

    In doing domains, we are asking people to spend more time doing something they do not see the benefit of immediately nor do they easily understand the how until they do it for a sustained time, and that couch and remote control looks much more attractive.

    • Reverend says:


      Long haul, indeed, but I also thing this is a rhetorical challenge as much as one of labor. I definitely get that such an approach is never going to be an easy sell for mass consumption, but that’s not what we are arguing for with Domains. By definition it’s more akin to a course of study. An understanding how these pieces work, and then a decision to labor on or not. We do that in just about every discipline, and no faculty would say I just want the students to have the easiest route to understand the subject matter. The struggle with it is crucial, and we set up degrees so that struggle spans time, so the idea should be baked into higher ed* already to some degree, no? That is where part of my hope that Domains can be more than a flash in the pan when it comes to higher ed.

      But back to the rhetoric idea, I still believe there is a way to frame this stuff that gets folks to adopt domains. This is why I remain fascinated with David Wiley’s work with OER, he has figured out the power of rhetoric brilliantly, and his approaches are always practical yet at the same time righteous. Making textbooks is laborious, but the argument seems to transcend that because it frames the long game as creating more equity through affordability. It’s a tricky rhetoric given how cost savings can be co-opted by the publishers, but the fallback position to open resources as the right thing to do regardless.

      I was listening to a recent Backstory podcast about the idea of Wilderness, and one of the segments was talking about how John Muir employed a religious-inspired rhetoric to try and save Yosemite from development as opposed to the more pragmatic approach of Gifford Pinchot who argued for damming part of Yosemite to deliver water to San Francisco. The episode talks about how both of these men where conservationists and loved the land, but they had a very different rhetorical approach that appealed to different communities. In fact, Muir’s rhetoric appealed to folks who had never actually seen Yosemite (the elite of the East), whereas Pinchot’s approach appealed to the folks closer to Yosemite because the damming would set a precedent that many of them could directly benefit from. Regardless, it was interesting to me the way we frame arguments around what ed tech is good for us. I was keenly aware of this during David Wiley and Stephen Downes recent back and forth about open education and how they frame their visions of open ed through quite distinct rhetorical approaches.

      I want to believe our ongoing attempts to fine tune the case for Domains will forge a rhetoric that will make folks want to spend the time and do the work. I believe people can be inspired to take control and do the work, particularly in higher ed, but the reasons have to help them see the benefits, which brings me to your final point. How do we frame domains so that folks can more easily see the benefits? I’m not sure. Is googling yourself enough? Is understanding you do not manage who sees what about you in search engines enough? Is having your name in a URL bar enough? Is creating an interactive, live archive of your thinking enough? Maybe not, but I do feel these ideas do connect with some folks, but how do you make the ongoing work it requires palatable? Anyway, I think this also comes down to what will make someone even care about it? And at that point it gets even harder, why do they care about their education? I somehow think the two questions are related.

      *This argument was geared towards faculty because I was specifically responding to a question around training faculty with/for Domains, not students in this case—I think that case can be made in terms of portfolios and framing of work (they see the value of LinkedIn), so there is something there, but I also think vision of digital identity still ring true, but that might be part two of this 🙂

      • Alan Levine says:

        I’m in it for the rhetoric, it can get wearying when you feel like the little rudder is turning the ship. My overwhelming optimism at the Reclaim 2017 conference was an appreciation for how wide the movement had spread, and again seeing the comments here. It’s real.

        As a tangent to your reference to the Muir story, I thought of John McPhee (one of my favorite writers of the land) in Encounters With the Archdruid, where the rhetoric of the Sierra Club’s David Brower and the BLM’s dam loving Floyd Dominy could not be more opposite, yet they still got in a canoe to spend time debating on what would be damned for Lake Powell (largely because that area was so remote, few even knew of it). The “bargain” Browser name to let that happen in lieu of putting more dams in the Grand Canyon might have been practical, but it haunted him.

  3. Mo Pelzel says:

    This is exactly where we are at my school (Grinnell College) … and why I’m so excited about the Domains admin workshop next month. For us it’s not just “asking faculty to dig a little deeper” (though it is certainly that), but also engaging so many constituencies of the college—IT, communications, library, deans, career services, global learning, etc.—and persuading them that the future of the liberal arts includes this “deeper interrogation” and understanding of how the web works. We currently provide faculty with access to web applications through Reclaim, but don’t give them access to cPanel, which is its own issue…but the larger problem is that we don’t make even this available to students. A range of concerns are expressed…problems are anticipated with respect to branding, accessibility, security, appropriate use, etc. To which I say, if these considerations are as important as folks say they are…and they certainly are that important…then all the more reason to provide students with the resources and space to learn about them through a real and authentic participatory engagement with the web itself.

    • Reverend says:

      Crazy, right? We are more worried about branding than learning. And it is a consistent theme. I try and resist simplifying this issue, but it certainly speaks to the limits of imagination when it comes to what the web means for higher ed. What is better branding then thoughtful sharing and building of web spaces as part of an intellectual community.And who better to demonstrate this than students in partnership with faculty and staff? I could not agree more.

  4. Brad Hinson says:

    We are dabbling in this space at the University of Colorado Denver, and our focus group is wrestling with these ideas right now. Thus far, we are inclined away from the technical literacy component of CPanel and all that entails, and leaning toward the pedagogical/identity components of digital citizenship. We are inspired by domains-pedagogies, but interested in branching in another direction, less technical. Jim, your reflection here describes our orientation perfectly. Our group is less inclined toward architecture and infrastructure and choosing to emphasize portfolio development and digital identity instead. This is a distinct choice we have made. We are standing on the shoulders of giants and give full-props to the Domains projects that have paved the way! But we are really enjoying picking it a part as well – seeing how we might twist, turn, and reorient it to suit our own interests. Like a git repository; we are forking our own flavor – sans CPanel. Tip of the hat.

    • Reverend says:

      I’m not sure technical literacy is that different from digital identity/citizenship. I guess this is where the discussion really gets me, cPanel is not the point, WordPress is not the point, but empowering folks to see there is a web beyond the LMS and that it is not hard to build is the point. I think we fail on some basic issues around digital literacy when we punt on this point and suggest it is too hard or complicated, it really isn’t that hard. And even if it were, like struggling with other topics like Judith Butler’s ideas of gender or Marx’s notions of Capital or Foucault’s notions of power, it should and could be a worthwhile engagement as part of a university experience. If this is really about integrating a sense of what digital identity looks like into a curriculum, then a struggle with the infrastructure that helps define it would be crucial, no?

  5. Brad Hinson says:

    Hey Jim, I agree with the spirit of domains and that CPanel is not the point, nor WordPress, nor infrastructure, etc. That’s exactly what we feel, thus we want to move past that discussion and move to what’s beyond it. I agree it’s not-that-hard but for many folks it is. For many it is also not-that-interesting. Yes, it is for me and probably most folks commenting here, as it is our inclination. However, we also want to engage with folks for whom tech is a turn-off. Those who are greatly interested in communicating and educating via the web, but deterred by the nuts and bolts under the hood. The technical discussion can be a barrier and a deal-breaker for many, and we’d like to remove that as a default setting. We have notions of providing it for folks, if/when they want it – but not making it a default. I do see a difference between technical literacy and digital citizenship, personally. One is about tools, the later is about identity, appropriate use, media, and all that comes with living, teaching, and learning on the web today. The later is an elevated discussion and is the greater point. These overlap, and tools always enter the discussion, as they have here. Some folks, like myself, love tinkering, configuring, and exploring the tools as a part of the exercise; but I find that many folks do not have that same affinity. Our hypothesis then, is that we will open more doors and engage more minds in the more important issues – if we lower the tech barrier. And like any hypothesis, we don’t know for sure, but we are testing it.

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